Genetic History Debunks Legend Of Blue Cheese Origin
Roquefort blue cheese has a long history in France in addition to a fascinating genetic history . [+] reflecting its domestication.
Legend says that blue cheese was discovered in Roquefort, France, when a young man snacking on bread and cheese made from ewe’s milk saw a beautiful woman in the distance. He promptly left his meal in a relatively cool cave to approach her. When he returned to his leftovers many months later, he found the first Roquefort blue cheese.
A new study sheds light on the origin story of blue cheese by investigating the genetic history of the blue cheese mold Penicillium roqueforti. The fungal spores of P. roqueforti create the eponymous blue veins. Researchers in France used genetic data they collected from cheese strains from different environments all around the world. In addition, they performed tests of growth and spore formation of various strains Using both datasets, the researchers reconstructed the various changes blue cheese mold has undergone in the past.
Penicillium roqueforti growing through ewe’s milk creates Roquefort blue cheese.
The Roquefort population of blue cheese mold has kept its genetic diversity, likely due to mild selection pressures during the preindustrial era. Roquefort blue cheese mold grows slower in cheese, compared to industrial strains, and has weaker lipolytic activity. This slow maturation reflects how cheese in this region is made—lack of refrigeration and the use of ewe’s milk, which is only produced between February and July. These strains have weaker lipolytic activity, which means the cheese does not become over-degraded during this time. Lipolytic activity also influences texture. Volatile compounds generated from lipolytic activity create a signature flavor and pungency. In fact, Roquefort and non-Roquefort blue cheese mold populations have different volatile compound signatures and, therefore, slightly different taste and flavor.
Genetic diversity has been lost in the yeast that make blue cheese. Industrialization of cheese production has created strong selection for cheeses that create mature blue cheese quickly. This mirrors what we have seen in crop and livestock production. Lost genetic diversity reduces our ability to respond to changing conditions and adapt our food production accordingly. Though the cheese-making industry keep multiple strains for either mild or strong blue cheese, genetic diversity is still heavily reduced, or bottlenecked, compared to preindustrial times.
And back to that legend—how did blue cheese originate? Actually, not from accidental contamination from moldy bread in a caves. First, old French texts suggest that blue cheese molds colonized cheese from within and not on the surface. Genetically, blue cheese molds do not come from food-spoiling molds. Moreover, surveys of caves have failed to find P. roqueforti spores. Nor can researchers cultivaate them from cheese cellars. This leaves one option: blue cheese mold probably came from a plant pathogen of rye, which made its way into the flour and then the baked bread. This idea is also supported by other Penicillium species that tend to infect or decompose plants.
Blue cheese mold provides an excellent example of rapid adaptation and potentially a model for researchers to use when exploring domestication in microbes.
Legends explain how Roquefort blue cheese was first created. Now, researchers uncover the genetic history and diversity of the mold that makes blue cheese.
Blue Mold Cheese
From mild to bold, blue cheeses include Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort & Danish Blue.
Blue mold cheese
The history of blue cheese goes back to the 7th century to a cave outside the village of Roquefort in France. Legend has it that a distracted shepherd forgot his lunch of bread and cheese in the cave. When he returned a few months later, the cheese had become infested with penicillium roqueforti, a mold that was growing in the cave. Today this natural mold is refined and used for almost all blue cheeses simply by adding the mold culture to the cheese milk. For the cheese to turn blue, oxygen must reach the inside of the cheese. This is often done by piercing the cheese with thin needles or skewers. The blue mold then matures inside the air tunnels, developing flavor as it ages. Most mold-containing cheeses take three to six months to mature. In blue cheese, this happens from the inside out.
Creamy, flavorful, mature
Intense strokes of piquancy from the characteristic blue veins stretch along a creamy, often crumbly texture. Slight hints of rural mushrooms give way to a mild profile consisting of creamy tones of browned butter, slowly resolving in a calm finish. Ranging from mild to sharp, blue mold cheese is made using milk from cows, goats and sheep, producing a wide variety of taste and texture combinations. Resembling fine porcelain, a clear white backdrop marbled with intersected blue veins make up the iconic appearance of these beautiful cheeses.
While some form natural rinds during maturation, most blue mold cheeses have no rind. Instead, the flavors that normally accumulate around the exterior can be found across the entire body.
Types of blue mold cheeses
The character and profile are determined by how much moisture is kept in each cheese, as well as the point of maturation the rind is pierced. Variants high in moisture melt effectively and add tang to red meat and sauces.
With a distinct look, Gorgonzola is versatile in its uses, adding zest to risottos, pastas or pizzas. The white and blue marbling stands gracefully on a cheeseboard, pairing wonderfully with grapes, honey and pistachios.
Castello Double Crème Blue
Delicate and luxurious creaminess mix with intricate flavor in this indulgent blue mold cheese. Castello Double Crème Blue is smooth, with a velvety texture and a slightly sharp and salty taste.
Pair with grapes, honey and red wine.
A blue mold cheese made from sheep’s milk, this French classic is complex and intense. Its body is moist and laced with small blue pockets, providing a blend of sharp and tangy nuances. Vibrant and full of character, Roquefort made blue mold cheeses popular for a reason.
Pair with red wine, apples and walnuts.
Intricate and rich, the taste of a blue Stilton is one to experience. Slowly opening with creamy and nutty specks, followed by a delicate finish. Its body resembles a beautiful mosaic with fine veins stretching like narrow rivers throughout. Less moist than other blue mold cheeses, Stilton is strong and intense.
Pair with honey, walnuts and sliced apple.
Castello Traditional Danish Blue
Made using milk from local cattle, Castello Traditional Danish Blue comforts with a creamy profile of intricate flavors and a smooth texture. Native to blue mold cheeses, the opening is initially soft with flavors intensifying as it lingers.
Pair with fresh pear, citrus fruit and walnuts.
Curious about blue cheeses? Here's all you need to know about cheeses like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton & Danish Blue. How they taste, how the cheeses are made and how you can use them. Click here to learn more.